Beating the Ring of Fire (and F-Bombs in the desert)

Stories - March 27, 2019 - Posted by Rob Bathgate

Beating the Ring of Fire (and F-Bombs in the desert)

The Ring of Fire is a unique ultra-running experience: 72.9 gnarly kilometres around Mount Ruapehu with a total elevation gain of 3398m.  Foundation Run member Debbie Currin ran her second Ring of Fire this year. She offers us a glimpse into her self-talk through the race.

Leg 1 – Chateau to Ohakune Mount Road (23.9km) – "The Goat"

I'm running on two hours' sleep. Don't panic. It is what it is. The first wave of runners started at 3.50am. These are the serious athletes. Am I a fraud for joining them or should I have waited for the next wave five minutes later? Those minutes will count for a lot at the far end of the day. Last year I was the sixth woman home and second in my age group. Not bad for a 43-year-old working mum of three. I'm not expecting to beat that result this year. It's a much tougher line-up: three times as many international entrants – and Lucy Bartholomew has entered, the Junior World Skyrunning champion.  Wow.  How cool to be running in the same race as her.

Deb Currin on Leg One

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Okay, let's experiment with leg 1. My husband always says my superpower is pacing myself so that I get faster toward the end of the race. But that means I potentially lose most of my time in this first leg. What if I push it here, just a little? Might bite me later, but I won't know if I don't try. Don't want to look back at this split and kick myself.

Padding up the road and onto the trail. Amazing night running. Phenomenal mixed technical terrain. Silence.  The shadow of the mountain in the moonlight. Just me and the world.

And all these other runners. No idea where I am in the pack. I'm keeping an eye out for other 73km solo women. I catch one of them on a technical undulating section. We form a natural rhythm, chat a little and enjoy the camaraderie.  She's American. Her legs are amazing.  Wish I had legs like that.

Miss America is strong and daring on the technical downhills. It's fun to zoom along with someone of similar ability. I want to beat her though. Make friends – and then destroy them. That's ultra running.

Love this desolate beauty.  Colours on the horizon as the sun comes up. I've pulled ahead of Miss America. Feeling strong.

My splits from last year are written on my arm – need to beat 4.01.  Looking at my watch as I get to the waterfall climb.  Nowhere near 4.01.  Damn. Not as awesome as I thought I was. 

Now I've fallen over, skidded while running down a steep descent of gritty sand. Crashed hard onto my leg. A few moments to check this isn't a race-killer. I have a massive, stinging graze right up my thigh. But no, I'm good to go.

Last push upwards to the first pitstop. "Wahoo, go Debbie!” I hear my husband in the distance.  God bless that man.

He tells me I just smoked last year's split.  What?  I'm confused.  The numbers on my arm are faded.  "Last year's split was 4.41, not 4.01!  You just smashed your first split by 23 minutes - you're the fourth woman in!”

Eeeeeeee!! Ego restored! Maybe I'm awesome after all.

We're scrabbling to get my pack and food sorted. Losing time at the pit stop. Bugger, my newly refilled drink bladder's just leaked and is dripping through my backpack.  Pour a bit more, seal it tight this time and hope it's enough. 

Leg two is my nemesis.  Here comes the hurty.

Leg 2 – The Missing Link – (25.5km) – F-bombs in the desert

Deb on Leg 2

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Taking it easy down the long road. There's no way I'm hammering my quads on this big downhill with 50km still to run. 

Miss America is closing in. She'll pass me soon but I'm at peace with it. For now. A friendly word or two as she passes me, but I know she's making a statement. She knows I know. 

I let her go.  Hubby sees it as he drives past. He calls out the window: "Run your own race.”  Yep.  I know.  I'm good.

Back into the bush now and it's a constant grunty up.  I slowly reel in Miss America. We stick together for quite a while. I can tell she's trying to pull away again.

A one-person swing-bridge. She crosses first and I lose her in the dense forest.  Damn it, all that work wasted. She's pushed herself to get out of my view at the other end. 

Over the bridge.  I get glimpses of her every now and again.  But now I need to crap. Not now. Every runner knows this feeling. Don't think I can run this off. I need to find a toilet soon or it's not going to end well. The race organisers gave us little compostable bags for emergencies. I don't want to use the bag. A volunteer at the next little hut tells me there's a long drop 50m down the track.  I hate long drops, but I'm more scared of the bag.

I'm in the long drop for way too long, trying to do what I need to do, dry retching and even throwing up with the sheer grossness. I can run an ultra but can't cope with a long drop.

I make it out of the loo only to see another 73km solo lady in purple shorts shoot past.  She spots me and I'm sure she puts on more speed. 

Damn it.  How many other women have passed while I've been heaving up in the long drop?  And Miss America just scored an extra ten minutes on me. I'm now at least sixth, if not further back.

So much work wasted. Trying to get my rhythm back. We hit the insane rocky mountains.  Spectacular rocky maintains. I love these rocky mountains. 

I hate these rocky mountains.  Someone please move these rocky mountains. 

"Just keep going, keep moving forward."  Over and over in my head.  Stupid mantra. I'm angry at it for being so uninspiring but it's all I've got. It's functional and it works. I even put it to music.

Long desert plains, hills, sand and scoria. Scoria sucks. I'm running down a particularly steep section, trying to land on anything solid instead of skiddy, shitty scoria. Trying to make up some time, I skid out on a loose patch, twist and grab a boulder with both arms to stop from tumbling down the slope. There's a pang in my lower back.

F-bombs in the desert. Can you break your back grabbing a rock?  I'm not invincible. Take a moment. Check everything is fine. Get up. Keep going.

Everything hurts. Even my arms hurt. When I'd complained to our strength coach and physio about my piddly upper-body strength, he'd joked "you don't need your arms for running, Deb."  Sure, Craig, you try running up this f*cking mountain of rocks and tell me you don't need your arms. 

(I do actually like Craig. We hassle each other but he knows what he’s doing. Maybe later I’ll tell him how grateful I am for all the strength work that’s getting me through this.)

Every now and again I spot Purple Shorts and Miss America in the distance, but they're teeny tiny dots.  Pretty sure I'm in sixth.  Looks like Purple Shorts is gaining on Miss America.  Interesting. 

Danger: I've run out of fluid, the sun is burning and I'm still about an hour from the second pit stop.  Must have lost more liquid than I thought when my drink bladder leaked.  Not good.

Despair: It's all over.  Ease back a bit and try to hold out ‘til the next pit stop.

Oooooh, a little hut and two smiley old men volunteers.  Surely they'll show mercy and give me a cup of water to scull?  Bless, they've got a massive teapot of cold water and they're refilling my bladder!  Five minutes lost, but I have fluid and some words of encouragement. Mental note to thank the volunteers after this is over. 

Find my rhythm again.  This hurts.  Why am I doing this? I'm so slow.  Why did I ever think I might be good at this?  I'm not strong after all. 

I can see a couple of kilometres ahead.  Oooh, Purple Shorts just caught Miss America.  Wow.  You go Purple Shorts.

They're getting further away.  Okay, I can do sixth. I must be slowing. I'm too slow. Why did I ever think I might be good at this? 

My leg hurts.  I should pull out at this next pit stop.  That would be nice and the pain would stop.  Imagine that. 

Don't be a loser, Deb.  You're not injured and you don't quit. 

But it hurts. I'm going to sit down at the next pit stop and I'm going to cry.   And I'm also going to change my socks to get rid of all the muck and gravelly bits that have got in under my feet. 

My feet are so sore.  Yes, I'm going to cry.  And I'm going to change my socks. 

There's the pitstop!  I can hear my husband cheering me on!  One last uphill push.

Thank God for this seat.  Marcel has thrust food in my hands and is taking over.  "It's so close," he says. "There's only five minutes separating 4th, 5th and 6th, and you're in 6th!" I tell him I don't care and I just want to finish.  I'm spent.  Everything hurts.  "Only five minutes," he says. He's rinsing my feet so I can change my socks.

Chia pudding. Flat coke. I look across and see Miss America. She's still here at the pit stop. She's been keeping an eye on me. Suddenly, I don't want to spend too long in the seat. 

Encouraging words from random strangers on the side.

Miss America has gone.  Don't panic. Drink the vege soup.

New socks feel so damn good.

My coach Rob will be watching this run online. 

Hmm, only five minutes.

Leg 3 – The Tussock Traverse – (23.5km) - The race!

I walk toward the massive gnarly descent in front of me and look out at the vast, barren landscape beyond. Runners in the distance like tiny ants. I'm over nine hours into the race, with another 23km to go.

A contradiction of peace, awe, brutality and rawness washes over me.  I have a clear choice.  Weirdly, this feels like one of my life's defining moments.  I see Miss America already running along the plains at the bottom and she looks solid.  I start descending and it occurs to me that I just made my choice.  

I came sixth last year.  I want a different number.

Game plan:  Push the pace just a little. If the gap reduces, stick with it to try and close.  If the gap grows, well good on Miss America, she deserves that fifth spot.

The race is on. Miss America is still running well, but the gap is closing.  Very slowly, but it's closing.  Eeeeeek!  I will myself to not slow my pace despite the pain. 

She won't look back.  Respect.  I wouldn't either.  I'm stoked to be in the open rather than the bush right now.

About 7km in I catch her and tuck in behind.  Game time, Miss America!  I don't think she's happy to hear me.  A bit of friendly chatter but we both know we want to beat the other.  We find a silent, steady rhythm.  Need to bide my time.  I don't want to blow a gasket, nor do I want a sprint finish after 70kms. 

Once I pass – if I pass – there will be a whole lot of pain and there will be no turning back. 

She's not giving an inch.  Damn it.  She's picked up her pace and surging every now and again in the hope I drop off.  Smart running.  The first to be demoralised, loses. I refuse to be dropped and stay on her heels. 

A few minutes later I decide it's now or never. I don't want to settle for sixth again.  I want to look back at this run and know I threw everything at it.  I pick my moment and pass decisively on a descent.  Push hard.  Don't look back.  Don't want any question in her mind that she can go with me.

I'm in fifth!  What have I done?  It hurts. Don't know if I can hold this.  Have I pushed ahead too soon?  No, it was the right thing to do – you needed to pass her before the open marshlands. 

Every time I hit a bend I push hard to try and get out of her sight.  I find my painful rhythm and hold it.

Insane – that's Purple Shorts in front of me! As I pass her she gives me a resigned smile of acknowledgement.  She knows she's beaten, but there's shared mutual respect.  I think she pushed too hard on the second leg. I'm no longer concerned about Purple Shorts.  Miss America is still running strong behind me. She's the one to beat.

Shit, I'm out of energy.  I'm supposed to be eating a power cookie right now but I can't afford to slow and get it out of my pack.  I need fuel.  I hate this big stupid pack.  I'm getting a new pack.  I hadn't planned for gels during this last leg, but then I didn't plan to be ‘racing' like this either.  My gel bottle is at the front of my pack and accessible. The cookie is not. Gel it is.  And caffeinated Gu Chomps.  Whatever gets me to the finish without slowing. 

Maybe I should stop and walk for a bit? No way.  Don't be a dick.  You can't do that now.  This isn't all for nothing.  Keep moving forward.  Don't stop. 

Don't. F*cking. Stop.

Here comes the open marshland.  Run as hard as you can on any open space where Miss America might see you.  Don't let it enter her head that she might be able to catch you right now. 

I don't feel fast anymore.  I just try to keep running and block out the pain. Formed tracks towards the end, and I know there's some good downhill sections coming.  I'm exhausted, yet buoyed by the mounting excitement.  I finally allow the thought to creep into my head that I might actually come fourth. Not fifth, but fourth! 

Two kilometres out and I see the Chateau right there. Emotion and exhaustion roaring.  Mum, Dad, Marcel and my cousin are at the finish.  I can hear Marcel cheering as I zig-zag down the hill and round the last bend.

Final push over the line.  Done. It's unreal. I can't believe I've done it.

I can barely stand and I'm hyperventilating.  The medics are all over me but I tell them I'm fine.  I'm just spent. Utterly spent.  Marcel is assuring Mum and Dad that I'm actually okay.

Katherine (Miss America) arrives not too long after me, and Hannah (Purple Shorts) a while later. Hugs and respect. We all understand what we've been through.

My goals for this run were to break 14 hours and make the top ten females. My unspoken goals were to make the top seven females and squeak into the top three in my age group.

I ran 12 hours 40. I knocked 80 minutes off last year's time. Thirty of those minutes were made up in the final leg.

I'm first in my age group.  Fourth woman home. I'm trying to process what's just happened. I just came fourth in a race that Lucy Bartholemew won!

It feels like I won my own race. It's the first race I've fought and won.

Man, I fought that so hard.

I'm shattered.

Not bad for a 44-year-old mum of three.

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Stories - March 27, 2019 - Posted by Rob Bathgate